“Wheelchairs Enable Recipients Worldwide,” Ensign, Feb. 2009, 76–77
The Kabin Buri district in Thailand is considered “up country,” which means it takes a lot of gasoline and traveling along rough roads to get there. It is in this obscure area where Pipop Leytaison begins every day with anticipation, hoping to inspire the disabled through his ability.
Having no use of his arms or legs since birth, Mr. Leytaison, who is now 50 years old, spent most of his life being carried from place to place in someone else’s arms. Yet he always yearned for the chance to be more self-reliant.
Ever since Mr. Leytaison received a wheelchair as part of one of the Church’s ongoing humanitarian service initiatives, he has not only become more independent, but he has also become a champion for the disabled. He has helped provide a handicapped training center that teaches others with disabilities how they can support themselves. He has organized a support network to help find and deliver information to the disabled. Through this network two businesses have been created, providing jobs where those with disabilities and those without work side by side. He has also developed a small farm to raise chickens, wild boars, fish, and frogs. Mr. Leytaison is a great example of what a wheelchair can do for someone.
“Wheelchairs improve [recipients’] sense of well-being and self-worth as they become more able to assist and care for themselves,” said Sister Theone Snow of Sydney, Australia, who is serving a humanitarian mission in Thailand with her husband, Robert.
From 2001 to 2008 the Church delivered nearly 300,000 wheelchairs in 95 countries.
With help from the Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing the gift of mobility to the disabled, the Church’s wheelchair program began in 2001 as the first of four major humanitarian initiatives along with clean water (2002), neonatal resuscitation training (2003), and vision care (2003). There have also been two special initiatives: measles eradication (2003); and family food production (2007), which is supported by the Benson Institute (an agricultural research institute established by Church President Ezra Taft Benson [1899–1994] through Brigham Young University in 1975).
“With the wheelchairs, we saw a worldwide, ongoing need for this product,” said Patrick Reese, humanitarian services planning and administration manager.
Over the years the Church has improved the program by offering four different models of wheelchairs, each designed for a variety of terrains and needs. The four different types include a standard hospital wheelchair that comes in five sizes; an outdoor wheelchair with thick inflatable tires; the “rough rider” wheelchair, which allows travel over curbs, steps, and rougher terrain; and a specialized tricycle-style wheelchair that allows people to push themselves forward and steer with a hand crank.
Most of the wheelchairs are produced in China. However, the Church is beginning to emphasize local production of the wheelchairs in order to provide jobs for disabled individuals and to stimulate a country’s economy. Local production also provides better repair options, since the parts are made locally.
The Church uses factories in Kenya, Vietnam, and South Africa, where wheelchair recipients are employed to produce the specialized, rough terrain wheelchairs. Brother Reese said more such factories are forthcoming, as is a training program to help people who receive a wheelchair learn how to use it and repair it. The training will also teach participants jobs they can perform in a wheelchair.
Improper health care, accidents, and birth defects have immobilized an estimated 50 to 100 million children and adults worldwide. Wheelchairs can enable these individuals to become a part of the community, socialize, and assist with household duties.
In northern Thailand, 40-year-old Sutham Yamao was born with crippled hands and feet. Since his parents died in 1998, Mr. Yamao has lived on his own and has managed to bathe, clothe, and feed himself without assistance, while nearby relatives provide him with any additional care.
Just down the road, Assadavoot Pingti, age 30, has been paralyzed on his right side since a motorcycle accident in 2003. Mr. Pingti’s mother has taken care of him, and his only brother comes to help move him from place to place.
Both men were thrilled when they recently received wheelchairs from Latter-day Saint Charities. Mr. Yamao had a friend push him around the community in his new wheelchair. Mr. Pingti lifted his hands in a sign of appreciation, while his mother was grateful that her son would be able to move around on his own for the first time in five years.
“Many have waited years to have the mobility the chair provides,” Elder Snow said. “In many other cases it is the other members of the family who come with tears in their eyes to thank us for the help we have provided, as it lessens the burden on them and allows them to pursue other activities that will strengthen the family.”
Latter-day Saint Charities teams with many local nonprofit organizations to identify people in need and deliver wheelchairs to them. In 2007 the Church recognized the King of Thailand on his 80th birthday by donating 1,000 wheelchairs to His Majesty the King’s charities.
In August 2008 LDS Charities made a similar donation to the Sai Jai Thai Foundation. Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Seventy, Asia Area President, officially presented the wheelchairs to the foundation’s president.
Elder Hallstrom spoke at the ceremony about the Church’s role in helping millions of people in more than 160 countries. Sister Snow said partnering charities are particularly touched when they find out that the wheelchairs come from fast-offering donations made by members worldwide. These funds are specifically set aside to assist the poor and needy.
In the last two years more than 3,000 wheelchairs were distributed in Thailand. In 2008 about 8,000 wheelchairs were sent to Turkey and China.
“To see a mother struggling to carry her 25-year-old son on her back because that is the only way he can be transported and then to see him tenderly being placed in his wheelchair is a memory that will be difficult for me to erase,” Sister Snow said. “I know the Lord is smiling His approval as we assist each person, who is His beloved child.”